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Are we what we keep? Reflections on our October workshop

3 November 2015

vicky creweBy Vicky Crewe, Cardiff University

We held ‘Are we what we keep? The Family Archive Workshop’ on Friday 16th October at The National Archives in Kew. The Family Archive Project only has a few months left to run, so this event was a chance for us to tell people what we’ve found out so far and to hear other people’s thoughts on the subject of family archives.

Delegates included representatives from libraries, public and private archives, universities, local and national museums, the Society of Genealogists, and community research groups, as well as independent researchers. The project team were really excited to welcome such a diverse range of people from different backgrounds, which showed how relevant our topic is across subject areas and sectors.

Families and Archives

Anna and I started off the day with a presentation about the Family Archive Project’s findings so far. We discussed several themes which have emerged from our historical case studies  and focus groups, including what exactly is included in people’s family archives. We’ve found that documents, photos and objects are common examples, but there are also more unexpected things like living plants and, of course, intangible heritage such as stories, songs and even names. We talked about gender and family archiving, as we’ve noticed a trend towards women taking responsibility for this, not only in our historical examples and focus groups, but also in the academic literature we’ve been reading. We also discussed how family archives can contribute to inter-generational communication: for example, how people collect things to tell future members of their family about themselves, or how people today build a sense of identity based on the deeds and personalities of their ancestors.

Mark Pearsall, Records Specialist for Family History at The National Archives, spoke next. His talk summarised the history of TNA and its collections and drew attention to the online resources available for researchers – including family history researchers – such as TNA’s Discovery catalogue, digitised collectionsHospital Records Database, research guidespodcasts and webinars.

Spotlights on Research

Mark’s talk was followed by a quick-fire ‘Spotlights on Research’ session, which saw six participants give three-minute talks about their current work. Our own Laura King went first, discussing the relationship between death and family archives in the 20th-century autobiographies in her case study. Sarah De Nardi of Durham University then spoke about her work the living history museum at Beamish, posing questions how the creation of a copy of a family home from the 1950s – including replicas of the owner’s family objects – will affect her family, and what responses it will evoke in local and non-local visitors.

Eileen Davies, a volunteer researcher on the Rehearsing Memory, Belton 2015 project told us about their work to uncover the experiences of the WWI Machine Gun Corps or ‘suicide club’ who trained at the Belton estate in Lincolnshire, including using family history to reconstruct the history of the Machine Gun Corps since official records don’t survive.

Elizabeth Donnelly, a freelance researcher, then told us about her work investigating the life of her relative Edward Dunn. He was MP for Rother Valley in the 1930s and 1940s, and the papers he left also reveal insights into the community he served.  Else Churchill of the Society of Genealogists told us about the work of the Society and the records it holds relating to family history research, including some very early family trees. Finally, our own Liz Gloyn rounded off the session by considering the overlap between personal and professional archives in ancient Rome – for example when personal archives contained business papers as well as marriage certificates – and she also related this to her own experience of work and family.

Families and Communities

Our third session looked at the relationships between family and community history. Our first speaker was Katy Wade from Sampad in Birmingham (one of our partners on this project), who discussed the My Route project. This project focused on the heritage and culture of a three-mile stretch of the city’s Stratford Road, a diverse multi-cultural area. Katy talked about the challenges of running a heritage project in a place where many of the occupants, past and present, are not represented in the city’s archives. In other cases, inhabitants had very few family possessions because they, or previous generations of their family, had fled conflict and hadn’t been able to bring many belongings with them. Katy explained how the project overcame these challenges by using other types of research and engagement, for example oral history recording, cooking demonstrations and taxi tours of the local area, to better understand the history of the area and the people who live there.

Vanessa Manby from the LS14 trust spoke next, describing the Seacroft Story Group in Leeds. She explained that, when the trust ran family history research sessions for local people, many participants were more interested in recording their own life stories for posterity; they wanted to look forwards, rather than backwards, in time. She gave us the personal stories of three of these people, explaining what they’d recorded about their own lives and their immediate families’ lives.

The final talk in this session came from Ross Horsley, from Leeds Local and Family History Library, who asked ‘what’s in the box?’. Ross took us through several unusual boxes in the library, which contain papers and other ephemera, including knitting patterns, diaries, photos, newspaper cuttings, and even the inventory of a pub. These boxes are unusual for the library because they contrast with the other holdings, which are mostly published books and other works. Ross tied the boxes into family history and also reminded us of the importance of context – without the library’s record cards for these items we wouldn’t necessarily know which families they related to. He posed some important questions to the audience about how the owners of these things – especially the diaries – would feel if they knew we were reading them and what would happen if the collections were split up under the library’s usual cataloguing system.

Archives in Different Media

After a small-group discussion session, in which the workshop participants were encouraged to contrast their own interests and perspectives on family archives, we moved onto our final session. This began with a talk from Simon Popple from the University of Leeds. Simon offered insights into Yarn, a new online platform for sharing research, which has been co-developed by his team at Leeds and community researchers. He demonstrated how Yarn works and the different ways in which it can be used, as well as explaining the rationale behind some of the terminology used and why this was chosen – users preferred the word ‘collections’ to ‘archives’ and ‘stories’ to ‘history’, for example. Yarn is free and can be used by anyone – from individuals to families, groups and organisations – and it allows users to tell stories flexibly, building them up over time, using different types of media (such as audio, video and images).

Our final speaker was Christine Grandy from the University of Lincoln, who spoke about her research into 20th-century home movies. Christine’s current work focuses on cinefilms stored at the Media Archive for Central England. She’s been researching the home movies in this archive, looking into what they depict and the similarities between them. Her work has also considered how ‘unwilling’ subjects were drawn into home movies, for example when local people were filmed without their knowledge or permission by western families on African safari holidays, or when particular family members didn’t want to be filmed in other movies. Christine also prompted us all to think about the repetitiveness of these films and the potential for boredom when watching them, even for families who they belong to – in fact, she suggested that this was one reason why so many home movies have been given to film archives.


The workshop was a great success and we had some fascinating presentations, which mixed the practical side of family archiving with more theoretical insights. Themes that cropped up throughout the day included the value of family possessions and the importance of context for establishing that value, and diversity in archival practices or types of archive (e.g. tangible versus intangible ‘things’ in archives). Many thanks to all our speakers and delegates, as well as the staff at The National Archives who helped us to organise the event.

You can follow the Family Archive Project team members on Twitter @VickyCrewe @DrLauraKing @lizgloyn @annawoodham1 and with the hashtag #famarchive. We livetweeted this workshop using the #famarchive hashtag; you can catch up on the tweets over on Storify.


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